Dairy Happenings Fall 2019
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
Robots that farm
“If you are not growing and willing to keep pace with the speed of technology, you are going to find yourself falling behind.”
This is one of the many mottos we work and live by here at Benton Group. How do we grow? Well, we keep our minds AND our options open. If you would have asked us about installing milking robots 10 or even 5 years ago, you would remember us telling you that it’s not cost efficient for us yet, the sensors are not accurate enough, and simply, it needs more time to get better.
Today, we have a robot installed in our milking parlor that cleans the teats of each cow before an employee attaches the milking unit.
A day in the life of Green Source Automation Fanuc R 100…
As our rotary parlor turns in a circle, and cows enter one by one, there is a small wheel on the platform that measures the speed at which the parlor rotates. The robotic milking arm receives this data and uses it to track the stalls and cows. As a cow enters, there is one camera that captures the cow and her udder placement. It records things like the placement of her teats, udder height, and confirms that there is actually a cow in the milking stall. From what the camera data tells the robot, it either acts upon it (there is a cow in the stall), or it retains the information (there is no cow in the stall) and stores it as data and knowledge.
Once a cow is detected, the robot starts its process.
First…the robot’s “arm” enters the stall where the cow is standing. At the end of the arm is the “tool,” which is the device that cleans the teat. It has the camera that finds the teats and locks on to them.
Second…the tool raises and its brushes and scrubs, cleans, and stimulates the teats. All of this happens in about 6 seconds.
What are the benefits; Cow comfort? Milk quality? Money? Time? Labor?
Yes, to all of the above. With a robot comes consistency. A cow’s comfort is improved because she knows what to expect every time she comes into the parlor. She also doesn’t need to worry if she is coming in at the beginning of the shift or the end (where our labor force could be fresh or tired). Consistency in parlor prep is easily the best part for the cow.
From a milk quality and cleanliness perspective, our quality in milk is the best that is has ever been. For reference, our herd is averaging a 133 somatic cell count (SCC). This is a measurement of the white blood cell count in the milk and a score higher than 200 can indicate the cow may be sick or stressed. The 35 percent reduction in SCC is due to good management practices. While the robot plays a big part in keeping our SCC low and cows healthy, we realize that our crew is performing at a high level and doing a great job in cow comfort, mastitis detection, and cleanliness of the stalls and pens.
Lastly, the labor force is tighter than it used to be and to compete in it we need to offer higher pay or more benefits. When we first installed the robot, we figured it would take 4-5 years to return our money; however, as we keep crunching the numbers it is proving to be an even better investment than expected.
Back to our motto - “If you are not growing, you are dying.”
“Change and the willingness to adapt to it is something that is a part of our culture. It keeps us on our toes, pushes us forward, and keeps our business viable in an industry that seems to lose more farms and dairy people every day. Thus, I would be surprised if we did not keep pursuing more technology in the future because it helps us grow and become the best we can be for our cows and community.” -Keith Hoeing, Benton Dairy.
LeRoy Kopmann does all the “ag sourcing” for Benton Group and has been with us now for three years. He began his career as an Agricultural Crop Specialist after graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural economics and animal science. Before joining Benton Group, he worked in agricultural retail supply, in Central Illinois, which supplied inputs to grow corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, along with seed and agronomic recommendations.
What all goes with the job title?
“Essentially, I work and develop relationships with all the local farmers who grow the grains and crops needed to feed our cows. The yearly feed needs I contract for our three locations, Ambia, Warren, and Freeland Dairies are approximately 6,000 acres of corn silage 4,000 acres of hay and 3,000 acres of shelled corn, which all must be Non-GMO (grown from seed that has not been genetically modified).”
From the other end...
“I also manage all the liquid nutrients (cow poop, rainwater runoff, liquid waste) from our dairies.”
Can you give us a summary of this year’s harvest season?
“Well, the harvest season for us begins in the fall after the last year’s harvest season ends. It starts by talking with approximately 45 local farmers to see what acres are a good fit for us this year, once we all decide on a plan, a contract is put in place for the upcoming growing season.”
What’s a good fit? “We are looking for growers and acres that fit into our regenerative farming practices, such as rotating corn and soybeans and alfalfa each year, planting a cover crop, utilizing a soil testing program for proper nutrient application, and application of our liquid nutrients. If it’s a good fit then their fields are then entered into our system and monitored throughout the season till harvest.”
Harvesting in May “Our Haylage (cut and semi-dried alfalfa) operation starts the end of May with about 4,000 acres. This goes on all summer with five harvests averaging every 28 days. We run two harvest crews with each crew mowing the hay, merging the hay for pickup, and then the operating the silage chopper for harvesting. In total we use four tractors, five semi-tractor trailers, and scale personal weighing and taking tests. When it’s all said and done, it takes about 7 to 9 days to harvest 4,000 acres of hay.”
Harvesting in Fall “During corn silage harvest at all three locations it will take six silage choppers, 35 semi-tractor trailers, nine tractors, and three scale people weighing and taking samples. This usually takes 2-3 weeks at 16-hour days. Even then we’re not finished, once each dairy is filled with its early supply of silage, it takes approximately 40 hours with 20 employees at each dairy to cover piles with plastic and tires for fermentation of 150,000 tons of corn silage.”
From the other end…again
“After we finish harvesting corn silage, we then begin our nutrient application of manure. Skyline Ag Service is the company we work with which applies all of our liquid nutrients on 10,000 acres of fields each year for Benton Group.”
Why work with Skyline?
“Skyline, like Benton Group is a business that is made up of families and employees who work hard and keep sustainable practices at their forefront. It is owned by Jim and Stacy Inghram and they have two sons, a daughter, and 15 full-time employees who work for them.”
“They can apply the liquid up to seven miles away using what they call a drag line. It’s an 8 to 10-inch hose which they run along and thru ditches to fields without crossing over roads. No hauling of manure is done by tanker trucks - this help us reach our goal of reducing our carbon footprint.”
They get the job done
“Once they start in September, they will run weather permitting 24/7 and run till all the acres are covered. Skyline also runs a custom harvest crew which does our corn silage at Freeland Dairy and does our Haylage harvest at Warren dairy. Between harvest and liquid application there pretty much are a full-time partner.”